Flood funding looks hopeful

Legislators discuss flood money, other budget bills

Jill Schramm/MDN Sen. Randy Burckhard, left, and Rep. Scott Louser look over legislation on their laptops as they wait for the start of the Chamber of Commerce forum Saturday.

Legislative funding for the first four phases of Minot flood protection remains a possibility, despite a decline in the revenue available for water projects, according to state Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot.

Speaking at the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce legislative forum Saturday, Streyle said a legislative committee is taking a different approach to funding water projects – shunning earmarks to create “buckets” of funds for categories of projects. The flood bucket is projected to contain somewhere in the range of $150 million to $165 million.

“We are still trying to figure out what that dollar amount is, but there will be no earmarks,” Streyle said. The governor’s budget had included $70 million for Souris River flood control, which is short of the amount needed to complete that fourth phase of construction that the Souris River Joint Board hopes to include in the scope of work this biennium.

The state also faces a major funding request for flood control from Fargo. The governor’s budget included $66.5 million.

“There’s more than enough money in that bucket to fund more for each project,” Streyle said, noting the intent is to provide around $80 million for Minot.

Another $65 million to $70 million is in a water bucket that would include the Northwest Area Water Supply project, he said. By remaining flexible rather than earmarking money, there is opportunity to direct needed funds to NAWS if a federal court rules favorably and restarts construction, he said. A lawsuit brought by Manitoba over potential organism transfer between river basins and by the state of Missouri over river water depletion has held up the project, designed to bring Missouri River water to the Minot region.

Overall, money collected from oil taxes for water projects is down, but not to the extent that projects can’t go forward, Streyle said.

“There’s a lot of money in that fund even at the depressed prices. We are even looking at doing some guaranteed funding availability on the flood side,” Streyle said, “where we would guarantee Minot the funding availability for the first four phases, which I think is critical.”

The first four phases include work on levees and flood walls on the western portion of the project in Minot. The work is estimated to protect about 60 percent of the at-risk population in the city.

Legislators at the forum also addressed other budget issues, including property-tax relief and new revenue sources.

Sen. Randy Burckhard spoke about Senate Bill 2206, which would have the state take over the cost of county social services. The cost is estimated at $275 million. Currently, counties can levy up to 20 mills for social services.

“It could be really big news for permanent property tax relief,” Burckhard said.

Rep. Scott Louser said his House Bill 1388, to be heard in committee Monday, also is designed to address property taxes. The 13-page bill includes language that has the state taking over the cost of K-12 education, but Louser said the bill has little future.

“If the concept was bad, the fiscal note was worse,” he said. “It’s a bit more expensive than I expected.”

However, he added, the $825 million fiscal note is far over-stated, having been determined by the Legislative Council based on an interpretation of the bill that wasn’t quite what he had intended. Louser said he will be proposing the bill be turned into an interim study.

Senate Bill 2204, co-sponsored by Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, would place a surcharge on traffic tickets to generate revenue for a new state radio system for law enforcement and emergency personnel. The bill places a $100 surcharge on major violations, such as driving under license revokation or suspension or causing an accident with an emergency vehicle or road maintenance vehicle. A $40 surcharge would be imposed on noncriminal violations, such as speeding or failure to yield.

Sen. Karen Krebsbach said funding to upgrade the state radio network is important not only for the state but for counties and cities that rely on the communications system.

“The equipment that they have been using is getting old,” she said. “I know this has been an issue for them for quite some time.”

Ruby said traffic fines go into a school trust fund, so to generate additional money for other funds requires imposing a surcharge.

Another bill grabbing attention would allow school personnel to carry guns if they meet training requirements. Minot Reps. Dan Ruby and Streyle and Sen. Oley Larsen are co-sponsors.

Rep. Matt Ruby, R-Minot, reported on the committee testimony that came Friday. He said the main concern is the mental and emotional impact on a teacher who would have to react in an active shooter situation and possibly shoot a student to protect others. Matt Ruby will serve on a subcommittee to further hash over the bill to see if it can be improved.

“Even the people that were against the bill understood there has to be something to ensure safety within the school,” he said.

Other bills discussed included House Bill 1172, which is Dan Ruby’s bill to direct the Department of Transportation to look at four-laning U.S. Highway 52 from Portal to Jamestown whenever major maintenance on the highway is needed. The bill has a 9-4 “do pass” recommendation from committee, although Ruby said the state has no plans in the next four years for any major maintenance on Highway 52.

Not faring as well is House Bill 1223, introduced by Dan Ruby to enable employers to purchase private workers’ compensation insurance as an option to participating in the state-run program. Ruby said he has floated the bill in previous sessions, only to be shot down, and this session’s bill appears to be headed toward the same fate. He said the state system means some pay higher rates to offset lower rates for others, but allowing these employers to seek cheaper insurance elsewhere would ultimately raise rates for those remaining.

The bill has a “do not pass” recommendation from committee.

“I am going to make some comments on the floor,” Ruby said, sighing, “but I don’t always win them.”

Other bills up for discussion are:

– House Bill 1434 relates to health insurance coverage for autism-related services. Krebsbach said the bill has flaws and isn’t likely to pass.

“We want to do something for autism, but when we do it, we want to make sure we do the right thing,” she said.

– House Bill 1168 restricts public employees from receiving pay for travel and time spent testifying before legislative committees. Louser said the bill is being amended to apply only to state employees and not local government workers and officials. Even with the amendment, the bill may have a hard time passing, Louser said.

– House Bill 1151, introduced by Streyle and passed by the House, redefines when companies must report oil-field spills to the state. Streyle said the bill would not require reporting of fluid spills contained within a facility if fewer than 10 barrels, or about 315 to 420 gallons, depending on the type of fluid. Streyle said state employees’ time is being wasted in unnecessarily investigating spills at the current threshold of one barrel.

“It has nothing to do with cleanup. Every one of these has to be cleaned up,” he said.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, Northwest Landowners Association and Dakota Resource Council are among opponents of HB 1151.


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